in Features | 06 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 29

Who's That Girl?

Alex Bag

in Features | 06 SEP 96

Now that the art world has downsized and is no longer an arena for wildly profitable spec buys, publicity fiestas or covert real estate gambits, it seems like it's going to become a great showplace for doomed or emerging or fringe or binless, catergoryless and otherwise venueless cultural practises. The charm of the art world now is that while everything else, the, uh, lively arts - film, music, literature, comedy, fashion etc. - has become more rigidly defined, staked out, categorised and organised by the forces of ultramodern marketing (see Alternative Music), art has become even more undefined. Excellent.

You could exhibit veal chops stuffed with amanita muscaria mushrooms in a loganberry coulis on a Volvo hubcap and nobody is going to tell you that's not art as long as the space it's in has white walls. And, as much as I'm really getting into landscape paintings, I still think this is a very good thing for art. Maybe art is finally figuring out what it is. It's everything that doesn't fit into the other categories.

Alex Bag, my favourite new young vixen gamine ingenue artist, (sorry) is a monologist. She makes really funny videotapes of herself talking, playing a wide variety of amusing, highly detailed characters, all shot in splendid low-tech style. It would be cleverly accurate to say that she is a post postmodern Ruth Draper, except that nobody knows who Ruth Draper is anymore. Well, Isaac Mizrahi knows, and guys and gals in their 40s and 50s who play contract bridge know, and maybe hat designers. But there isn't a big bin in the record stores devoted to monologists, so nobody in the broad sense ($) really knows. Neither the late Ruth nor the recent Alex are exactly what you would call stand-up comediennes. Ruth was a sort of semi-reclining comedienne and Alex is a sort of sitting-up-straight, talking-into-the-camera comedienne. But neither of them inhabit the confines of traditional comedy.

The confines of traditional comedy are pretty confining, as you might gather from watching Live at the Improv or whatever those comedy shows are on American TV. There's a certain LCD at work in comedy today that doesn't stand for Liquid Crystal Display. 1 If a comic has exquisite material today it just might not play at any place that will pay. As the legendary B.S. Pully often remarked when a laugh failed to manifest: 'I'm too smart for the room!'

Alex Bag is too smart for the room. We're talking high-end shtick here. We're talking semi-rarefied hilarity. In her Fall '95 (1995) tape, exhibited at the 303 Gallery in New York, Bag portrayed a student at the School of Visual Arts, checking in to report on her progress in each of eight semesters. In other bits she plays a phone sex siren in a cable TV ad, a girl scout and her mom, a McDonalds' customer and a McDonalds' counter person, assorted mourners of River Phoenix, the hostess of a rock commentary cable show ('Rock Insights, the show that pontificates on the social and extreme nuances of rock music'), the hostess of a fashion talk show raving on in generic mid-Euro accent on the genius of Azzedine Alaia ('small man, big ideas'), and a honky arrhythmic Salt'n'Pepa.

Ms. Bag is a perfectionist satirist. Her characters are drawn with perfect language, perfect intonation, perfect attitude and perfect hair and make-up. Like most satirical characters, they animate clichés of human behaviour, but her clichés are minutely detailed studies of attitude, style and language. Satire or parody is difficult to carry off now because in this time of pastiche and appropriation, so many things seem to be self-parody already that it's difficult to find something virginal and original enough to parody. But Bag works inside out, thinking like her characters think and investing them with enough sympathy to bring them to life and enough ambiguity to compete in a closed system of inbred ironies. This isn't cold-blooded stuff, it's got heart and soul running through its most compelling renditions of dumbness. There's a certain sympathy for the stupid here that transcends typical satire. One of the things about showing work like this in an art gallery is that you can do what you want without stooping to meanness, to the roadkill sensibilities of big-time TV or yahoo-oriented, 'suds by the pitcher' comedy clubs. (The academic and social progress of an art student isn't going to be chronicled on Saturday Night Live, at least not this season). One of the best things is that you don't have to stay there, it's not a lifetime commitment. A successful performance artist isn't stuck with it. Look at Ann Magnuson and Eric Bogosian. As long as you're really good and don't cram yams up an orifice, you can create a fan-based demand for yourself in the art contiguous marketplace and go on to do one person shows in off-Broadway theatres and act in Oliver Stone movies and make CDs. Hey, once you're successful you're not a performance artist anymore, you're an entertainer, you know.

Alex Bag is just this far from being there. (I'm holding my thumb and index finger about a half inch apart.) She seems like she has more than what it takes to be a big star in major league satire, if she wants to. She's funnier than anything on broadcast TV (except last week's Dana Carvey show, that was really funny too. Cancellation looms.)

Alex Bag is truly versatile. She's a woman of a thousand makeovers, like the Cindy Sherman of shtick, or a rarefied Carol Burnett. She gets all the microscopic nuances just right, the coif is high comedy, the lipstick and eyebrows are art. The rip in her T-shirt is art - finally grunge I can relate to. And the language, the diction and the accents and the phrasing are all dripping with mouth-watering verisimilitude. She's fine art because she targets tastefully and destroys mercifully and elaborately things way outside the orthodox hit list. Way. She's a cool scourge of the neo-banal. And it's a feel-good kind of scourge. She's bad. She's Bag.

1. Lowest Common Denominator